Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Aces vs. Kings

I played in a well-structured tournament at Foxwoods today; players started with 20,000 in chips, and the levels were 40 minutes long with a nice, gentle progression. I had a good first 3 hours or so; though I never had a hand better than 77, I had managed to slightly increase my stack, and after a few ups and downs, I had a little more than 21,000 in chips when the following hand happened:

The blinds were 100/200, with a 25 ante. I raised to 600 UTG with KK. a tight player folded, then a fairly solid and aggressive played reraised me (very quickly!) to 2,600. All folded back to me. I could have just flat called, but I decided to four-bet to 8,000. My opponent quickly moved all-in for about 20,000 total.

I thought for a minute, and then called -- and sure enough, he had the dreaded AA!

Could i have folded? On the final bet, probably not. Yes, he had acted in a way that suggested great strength, but I was getting around 2.5-1 to make a call there, and it certainly wasn't impossible for him to have QQ or even AK. On the other hand, his quick actions did match similarly quick actions on an earlier hand, when he raised on the flop with two pair. If I ever play with the same opponent again, this could be a reliable tell. Still, this early in a tournament, it would have been tough to allow one previous action to make me certain he could only have aces.

Of course, there are other places in which I could have improved my line too. Maybe, given the suspicious speed of my opponent's three-bet, I could have just flat called there. Or maybe I could have made a smaller four-bet (say, to 6500 or so), and felt less compelled to call by pot odds when my opponent moved all-in.

Sure, chances are that all the money was going in anyway -- after all it's AA vs. KK. But that doesn't mean you can't find places where you might have been able to improve your play even in hands where it wouldn't have ended up changing the ultimate outcome.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Overplaying Top Pair

Here's a quick tip everyone will violate on occasion: don't overplay top pair in no-limit hold'em.

Why is such a simple rule so hard to follow? The problem is that top pair, top kicker is certainly a strong enough hand to bet with in almost any situation where your opponent hasn't shown you any aggression. And against weak opponents, value betting again and again with top pair is a good way to milk money out of players who will call with any part of the board. But stronger opponents can take advantage of such tactics, trapping you and extracting large bets from your "big" hand.

The key is to play top pair as a vulnerable hand that is likely to be best. You should definitely value bet with top pair until you're given a reason not to. However, you may want to structure these bets in such a way that the pot stays relatively small; if given the opportunity, you may even wish to check behind on the river if you've been called on both the flop and the turn. Against tricky opponents who like to bluff, you can try checking back the turn and then calling a river bet, hoping to induce a bluff.

The key is to remember that top pair is an excellent hand in small pots -- but a terrible hand (in most cases) with which to play for all your chips in a deep stack situation. If you've shown aggression on a couple streets and then get raised by an opponent, chances are that you're not going to have the best hand.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Planning Ahead

Too often, players make a bet in no-limit hold'em, then have no idea what to do if their opponent raises them. This should rarely be a situation in which you find yourself settling in for a long think; you should have a clear plan of action for what to do if an opponent pushes back at you after you make a bet.

If it helps, think of making a bet as making a move in a game like chess, checkers or go. Since you know what's in front of your (the cards, players, and chip stacks), you should have already taken this into consideration before you make your initial bet, and have formed a plan around that. Do you want to shove over the top of an opponent who raises? Fold to any aggression? Just make a call? While the answer to this question will, of course, depend on many factors, don't get yourself in trouble by waiting until you get raised to start deciding what to do.

Of course, there are plenty of times when an event truly does surprise us (say, an opponent makes a big bet after an apparent blank hits the board on the turn or river), and during these moments, we do need to take our time and figure things out. But it always pays off to think ahead as much as we can given the information we have -- it definitely reduces the pressure when it comes time to make tough decisions later on.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

You Don't Have to be Certain

Few things in life are certain -- and the same goes for poker. Sure, it's great when you call someone's hand out and they flip over the cards to reveal they're exactly right, but in most cases, it's impossible to get that precise a read on an opponent.

In fact, attempting to do so can often lead you to conclusions that are entirely wrong. It's much better to put an opponent on a range of hands that you're confident about (for instance: "My opponent has AK, QQ, KK or AA") than to try to put them on a single hand with less certainty. In many cases, players do the latter in order to justify otherwise questionable plays -- and while it looks impressive when they turn out to be right, the results can be disastrous when they're wrong, and relying on a broader range would have led to the correct play.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Protect Yourself at All Times

In a recent high-profile boxing match, Floyd Mayweather Jr. defeated Victor Ortiz on what many considered a cheap shot. The knockout blow was clearly legal, but also came when it seemed clear to everyone (except Mayweather) that Ortiz wasn't expecting any punches to be thrown. Mayweather's defense was the classic boxing adage that every referee reminds both fighters of before each fight: "protect yourself at all times."

What does this have to do with poker? It's important to protect your hand at all times. Don't move your hand towards the dealer or the muck until the pot is pushed to you, and never make it look at all ambiguous as to whether you're still involved in the hand. Yes, sometimes when the dealer accidentally declares your hand dead, you'll get a ruling that allows you to win a pot or stay in the hand if your cards can be retrieved. But don't take chances -- keep your hand safe, and protect yourself at all times!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

When an Out Isn't an Out

Early in our poker careers, we learn how to count outs -- the cards that will make our hand, and, hopefully, make us a winner. We learn, for instance, that there are eight cards that can make an open-ended straight draw, and then use that to calculate our odds when considering whether or not to call bets.

However, it's important to remember that unless you are drawing to the nuts, you need to discount your odds. If you won't always win when you hit an out, it's not nearly as valuable; in fact, it can sometimes be a very expensive "out" if it commits you to a pot against someone with an even stronger hand. Keep that in mind when counting outs -- it may be enough to keep you out of some hands where your odds initially seem just barely good enough to justify a call.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Tournament Structure

Just a very quick tip today on evaluating a tournament structure. In the last few years, tournament organizers have found that telling players they can begin a tournament with lots of chips is the easiest way to impress them, since it gives a quick impression that you can play for a long time.

However, other factors are usually more important. First, how long are the levels? If you start with 15,000 chips but get 30 minute levels, that's usually a much better tournament than one where you have 25,000 chips but only play for 20 minutes per level.

You'll also want to check the structure sheet, if you can find it. Often, lower buy-in tournaments have levels "missing" from the structures used for bigger tournaments. This is another huge factor; a more gradual increase in levels will give you a lot more time to maneuver when compared to a structure where the blinds are regularly doubling from one level to the next.

So, the next time you're deciding what tournament to play in when you're on vacation in a poker-friendly area, remember to look at all the relevant factors if you're looking to play in the tournament with the best structure!